"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
August 31, 2012
Charity and Imagination
by Jeff Lindsay

A formative experience for me earlier in my career was collaborating with two professors from Georgia Tech who had similar technical interests. Both of these professors are Muslim — one from Egypt, one from Iran.

One night at dinner, the topic of religion came up. One of them, a highly educated and widely respected man of great intelligence, told me of his love for the Koran, for the unearthly beauty of its language and the power of the text to enlighten and inspire. We could understand one another, I felt, because we both had experienced the power of a sacred text.

I would later spend more time with one of them, staying overnight with his family and seeing a faithful Muslim family in their interactions with each other. I saw so much of what we Latter-day Saints aspire to: love and kindness, respect between husband and wife (a highly educated woman in this case, also with a Ph.D., as I recall), family fun together, and, yes, good food.

Of course I know there are severe problems in parts of the Muslim world and some movements and trends that are disappointing to many of us, including many devout Muslims, just are there are problems and disappointments in our own faith and in Christendom in general. But I saw abundant evidence that intelligent, talented, loving, happy, tolerant, peace-loving people can be faithful Muslims.

There are some who would ask how any intelligent person could possibly be Muslim. A better question is to ask intelligent Muslims what their faith means to them. There's much to learn and appreciate. We don't have to accept it and agree with it, but there's benefit in understanding.

There are intelligent Muslims who sincerely wonder how any intelligent person could possibly be Christian. After all, the idea of God being born as a baby boy and then allowing Himself to be killed can just seem crazy at first blush, and the idea of God asking us to ritually drink his blood and eat his flesh might even seem offensive to some. Isn't that all just a little bizarre and backward? So it can seem. I hope they will ask us to explain and seek to understand, not just condemn.

I have the same hope for our Christian peers who are outraged at what they think they know of Mormonism. How can Mormons be so stupid? Instead, I hope they'll ask us in order to understand what our faith means and why we find so much intellectual beauty in LDS theology and so much joy in our faith. (I'm not necessarily including bishopric or ward council meetings in the "joy" part.)

One of the things I really like about The Book of Mormon is its condemnation of anger and its teachings that lead to charity and peace. When the Resurrected Lord visits the Nephites in 3 Nephi 11, for example, one of the first teachings out of His mouth was condemning the anger and contention they had among themselves in their disputations over religious doctrine.

The spirit of contention is not of God, He explained, and it is Satan who stirs up the hearts of men to anger against one another. Those who do the mocking in The Book of Mormon, those who give in to anger and hate, whether "religious" Nephites or apostates or Lamanites, are always on the wrong side.

At the request of someone else, I recently visited a place I prefer to avoid. I call it the Great and Spacious Website (one of several, actually) where the anti-Mormon animosity is similar to that shown in Lehi's vision involving a great and spacious building. The anger and bitterness that some people express toward the Church and toward its defenders can be rather breathtaking. The tone of smarmy anger may be viewed as confident discussion of the truth by some, I'm sure, but it was disappointing.

On a particular topic of minor importance, I engaged in dialog for a few rounds, just long enough to get a fierce dose of accusations and list of all things wrong with Mormonism, followed by the thread being swiftly shut down before I could reply any further. The party line that dominates the Great and Spacious Website and its cousins is that Mormonism is laughably ridiculous and the only way someone can defend it is to be a depraved liar, deliberately deceptive and knowingly blind. Mockery and contempt are the only worthy attitudes a reasonable person can have against so foul and disgusting a religion.

Yes, we have a ridiculous religion — from the world's perspective. If you don't believe in God, the First Vision story is appalling. If you don't have faith to accept the idea of angels, then the whole story of The Book of Mormon only makes sense as obvious fraud. And if you begin with a "sure knowledge" that Joseph Smith was a criminal perpetrating fraud, then the way we resolve all sorts of conflicting testimony and evidence about his life will surely only further confirm the negative and leave one wondering how anyone short of being brain dead could possibly be Mormon, much less a serious, faithful Mormon.

But that approach misses the real questions that people should be asking, questions if asked sincerely could lead to understanding, perhaps even a touch of respect, and in some cases, much more.

Sadly, some Latter-day Saints make similar mistakes in their zeal. There are religions and doctrines of others that seem far removed from the Truth as we think we know it, and it's easy to view those foreign perspectives as silly. It's easy to mock. This takes almost no mental effort and certainly no imagination.

There is something much more difficult, though, and actually much more elevating. Rather than mocking, what if we sought to understand? What if we imagined that some of those who disagree with us aren't mindless robots or cesspools of deception, but might have a somewhat self-consistent framework for their viewpoints that doesn't require a frontal lobotomy? What if we imagined that they were intelligent people trying to find and understand truth, just like us? What if we asked them what they think and why, not to expose their stupidity, but to understand?

I'm not calling for relativism or saying that every religion and philosophy is valid. But there is good in every religion and beauty that we can learn from. There is intelligence in almost every religion and intelligent believers that might have something we can learn from.

To have charity, the pure love of Christ, for those who disagree with us and have strongly different religious views, a vital and often missing element is imagination. We need to imagine that our opponents are, in most cases, not just trying to be evil, that they haven't sold their souls or surrendered their mind to a cult.

We need to imagine that those who disagree with us, whether religiously or politically, might be just as intelligent as we are and trying just as hard to be good and to do good. So what do they see that we don't? How do they resolve the challenges they face? Why not imagine that there is something there, then ask and understand?

This attitude can save souls. I think of those in the Church who sharply disagree with some position the Church has taken or some action of its leaders. It is easy to mock. That takes no imagination at all. The wiser approach, the more charitable and imaginative one, is to ask, "What do they see? Is there something I'm missing? Is the problem, perhaps, me and my lack of understanding? Is it possible that those men are good men trying to do what's right? Is it even possible that God doesn't see things my way?"

To at least enter into this inquiry can lead to surprising results. We may continue to disagree, but if we can resist the temptation to think of those we disagree with as morons and throwbacks, we may be able to hold onto the iron rod that brings us to the tree of life in spite of the mists of darkness — or, more often, the "miffs of darkness" that block our vision along the way.

This attitude can also help us rescue others or be more Christlike in dealing with them. Those who struggle in their faith and become inactive or even leave the Church may have entirely valid, sincere reasons from their perspective, and brushing them off as ridiculous or disgusting can intensify wounds when healing or at least compassion might have been possible.

Those who choose to leave still deserve kindness, and if they are family members, they still deserve our love and our time and respect. Alma the Elder’s patient love for his “anti-Mormon” son is a good example, as is Alma the Younger’s love for his rebellious son Corianton.

And note that when Alma has a long talk with fallen Corianton in Alma 39-42, he doesn’t just brush off the intellectual objections his son had been having with the Gospel. Instead, he gets into the details and provides a thorough logical analysis to help that son intellectually understand the fairness and mercy of God.

It could have been easy for Alma to say, “Well, you’ve been immoral. That’s the real problem here. These intellectual arguments of yours are just excuses for your problem with women. Shape up, kid, and pray about it you have any questions.” No, Alma accepted his sons concerns as legitimate and spent a great deal of time preparing a reasoned response. And through that combination of love and logic, he helped rescue Corianton’s soul. Alma has the imagination to see the reality of Corianton’s worries and the need to address them.

Note that Alma’s love for his son was not expressed as acceptance of bad behavior. It led to a firm call to repentance and teaching truth. But it was an expression of his imaginative ability to look past superficial stereotypes and see Corianton as a complex person with genuine intellectual needs that needed attention.

I think that healthy imagination is tied to charity. The greatest challenge for our imagination, though, is contemplating and grasping the love of Christ. This is transformative imagination, imagination that opens us to a reality that changes everything, most especially us.

Can you imagine that Christ actually knows and loves you, and suffered for you? Can you imagine that He wants to bring you joy and peace? Can you imagine returning to His presence and being swallowed up in the joy of God?

Alma’s sermon in Alma 5 is an appeal to imagination, looking to the future and imagining our readiness to stand before God, with outcomes dependent on our relationship with Christ. It is interesting that at the end of Moroni 7, when Moroni completes his discussion of charity, that he also calls us to imagine that time when Christ returns, and to consider that if we receive God’s miraculous gift of charity, then “when he shall appear, we shall be like him….that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure.”

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.

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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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